Family members are often designated as the executor of a will. As the executor of a will, you have been given a challenging responsibility as well as a great honor. A loved one has entrusted you to carry out their last wishes and to disburse the contents of their estate.
No matter how clearly the will is drawn up, this is usually not an easy or simple task. Emotions run high as family and friends come to terms with their grief, old conflicts rise to the surface, and ongoing clashes take center stage. When money is concerned, people are often at their worst instead of their best.
Family relationships can be ruined as family and friends fight over the financial and personal assets of the deceased. Too much value is placed on money and personal possessions and people lose sight of what is truly important.
As the executor of the will, you have been placed in a position of great influence. The deceased person believed you were the most capable of handling the estate and managing the dynamics between family and friends named in the will. If you are going to do your job well, you have to make sure that you are not part of the fight.
You basically have three choices. You can resolve the conflicts the legal way. It will cost everyone time and money and will probably not keep the relationships intact. You can enter into mediation with all of the parties that are in conflict. This requires the full agreement of each person involved in the fight and it may or may not settle the issues.
The third alternative is for you to sit down with the people in conflict and let them know very clearly that you will be speaking and acting on behalf of the deceased. Let them know that you will use your position of leadership to encourage all of them to work with you to find solutions that meet everyone’s needs.
I recommend you try the third alternative. In doing this successfully, you will not only respect the wishes of the deceased, you will help family and friends to develop stronger relationships through the loved one’s death. If you are going to make this work, here is what you need to do.
First, educate yourself. Consult with a lawyer who specializes in wills and estates and make sure that you understand the scope of your responsibilities and the guidelines within which you must make decisions. Continue to consult with the lawyer as you carry out your responsibilities to make sure you are staying on track.
Secondly, remember that you will be leading by example. The deceased had faith in you to carry out his/her wishes. You have to remove yourself from the squabble if you want to be an effective leader.
Realize that there is nothing to fight about here. The primary assets are taken care of in the will. You can’t alter the major disbursements and if anyone wants to argue about these items, they will have to challenge the will legally.
The most common arguments are about personal possessions that have very little monetary value. It is true that these objects may have sentimental value. They are connected to the memories of the deceased person. Remember that if you fight about personal possessions, the memory you attach to the possessions will be of the fight.
Third, ask yourself if you can live without these objects and still have your memories. The answer, of course, is yes.
Next, look into the future and see how the love, support, and connection with the people named in the will can enrich your life. Ask yourself if you’d rather have the objects or the ongoing relationships with family and friends.
Finally, see how your attachment to these things can erode your inner peace and destroy loving relationships. Possessions are not worth living with anger, conflict, and ongoing bitterness. Even if people don’t see each other again once the will has been resolved, they will carry the ill effects of such turmoil with them for the rest of their life.
Once you’ve put yourself through these five steps, lead your family and friends who are fighting through the same steps. Instead of asking them what they want, ask them to think of their love for the deceased person and ask them what they are willing to give up. Show them that you are willing to let go of everything and I’m sure they will follow your leadership. You can then ask them how they can share the remaining possessions and still keep the spirit of the deceased person’s intentions.
My mother recently said that she spent the first half of her life collecting things and now she’s spending the second half getting rid of them. When you have some perspective on life, you realize what it is that makes you happy. It’s not stuff, it’s the people you love and share your life with.
Shirley Vandersteen, Ph. D., R. Psych.